A Shrove Tuesday Like No Other

Yesterday, speaking quietly in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Within minutes the world was awash with speculation. First, was it true? Then, what was the real reason for his resignation? And finally, what were the implications for the Church? It was the best-kept secret of the digital age, but once it was out it spread like wildfire. Everyone became an instant expert on the papacy and began broadcasting their little nuggets of knowledge to all and sundry.

Anyone who saw the video of the pope making his announcement must surely have concluded that what the pope said was actually true: at 85 he is feeling the burden of his years and believes he can best serve the Church by making way for another. The voice was a little indistinct, the Latin phrases a trifle slurred, as though reading his prepared statement was an effort. It was, however, a typically clear and charitable statement, marked with the personal humility which has been so much a feature of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. He is, first and foremost, a scholar pope, with all the strengths and some of the weaknesses that implies.

Inevitably, some looked back to the occasion in 2009 when Benedict XVI laid his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V and wondered whether it was more than a pious gesture, a hint of what was to come; others, myself among them, noted that the resignation statement had been signed on 10 February, feast of St Scholastica (St Benedict’s twin sister, a model of prayer), released on 11 February, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Day of the Sick, and timed so that a new pope could be in place by Holy Week, the Great Week of the Church’s liturgical year. A scholar pope, alert to the significance of history and liturgy, is quite capable of holding all these things in mind, but I believe the statement Benedict XVI issued is probably the simplest and least crafted of all his writings. It is the statement of a man who must answer to God not only for his own soul but also for the soul of every other member of the Church. Sometimes, people say exactly what they mean, especially when their true audience is God.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, so I shall resist the temptation to dredge up my own selection of facts and fancies and concentrate instead on how I see the link between yesterday’s announcement and the holy season we are about to celebrate.

We were powerfully reminded yesterday that the Church is a universal institution. How small and sometimes silly looked the ‘national’ reactions of some individuals, the vapid theorising about who the next pope ‘should’ be and the agenda the commentator would like to see being pursued! Lent is a reminder that salvation is not just about us. Our Lenten observance is not an arrangement between the two superpowers (God and us), it is something of truly cosmic significance: it involves others and unites past, present and future. We may think that what we are doing concerns our own personal salvation and nothing more, but that is an impossibility. We journey to God together, as a people, as a Church; so our personal penances, our attempts to make up for the negligences of other times, our turning away from sin, are all part of this greater movement towards God. That is one reason why our living Lent as well as we can is so important. What we do affects others.

We were also reminded yesterday of the importance of prayer, charity and gratitude in the life of every Christian. The penances we have chosen for ourselves this Lent may be dangerous. They may make us smug and self-satisfied if we are able to persevere with them, or conversely, they may make us cantankerous or depressed if we can’t. The penances God chooses to send us, however, won’t be dangerous at all. They will open us up to the mystery of his being in a way that nothing of our own devising ever could. They will evoke prayer and charity, if we accept them in the right way; they will stretch us, confound us, make us grow. The question is, are we ready for them, prepared to welcome them with gratitude? If we spend the forty days of Lent listening for the voice of the Lord in everything, prepared to embrace his will in everything, however contrary, we shall make a good Lent — but it won’t be a bit like what we had intended. It will be so much bigger.

One further point from yesterday that applies to Lent. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of his desire to continue serving the Church though a life of prayer. Every Christian life should be a life of prayer, but we are apt to make it very complicated. During Lent we Benedictines return to a primitive mode of monastic existence. One of the things we do is read through a book of the Bible in a very simple way. The books are assigned by the superior (i.e. not chosen by ourselves) and read straight through as lectio divina (i.e. slowly and prayerfully, without recourse to a 1,001 interpretative articles or commentaries). For the academically inclined, that can be quite hard. It isn’t a case of laying aside our critical faculties in favour of becoming holy asparagus, more a case of attuning our ear to a different kind of speech, of slowing down, becoming less busy.

So, instead of reading a whole host of good books about prayer, try spending a few more minutes in silence before the Lord. Instead of devouring a library on the subject of scripture, read scripture itself, but do so in a more reflective manner, chewing over the words until you find one that stays with you through the day. Make this Lent one in which you come to know the Lord; and remember, you can only do so in his way, and at a moment of his choosing.

Note
In community, I assign books of the bible to our oblates and associates at the beginning of Lent. If you would like me to assign one to you, please email or use the contact form at the head of this site.

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32 thoughts on “A Shrove Tuesday Like No Other”

  1. A wonderfully inspiring post, Sister, which will be a spiritual feast for days to come. Thank you.
    ” Behold a great priest who in his days pleased God, and in the time of trouble was made a reconciliation “

  2. Thank you for speaking God into the secular media’s noise. As a fellow-Christian I am awed by the gentleness of this man. Thank you for reminding us that it was a simple, unspun statement. That’s why it baffles our noisy media circus.

    And, it brings us to Lent. He has done us all a great favour by focussing us away from the world, and ourselves, and towards eternity. Towards God.

    God bless you.

  3. Thank you so much for your daily thoughts – reading your updates are part of my start of the day. And, yes, please, do assign me a book. Thank you.

  4. Thank you sister for blessing my journey into work. Wise words indeed and I will be sharing this with my children. Can we have a book to read together?

    I too was appalled at the vitriol on twitter yesterday even from Catholics who felt that the Holy Father should have carried on, yet what an example of humility he has set for us and what a comment on the state this world is in that he doesn’t feel mentally or physically fit to fight it any more.

    If today is about abundance before lent then my prayers are for an abundance of love, faith, charity and hope for all.

  5. Thank you so much for yet another thought provoking message. If we all slowed down, talked less and listened more, this world of our would be a very different place.

    Our Sunday School is urging the children to do one good act of kindness each day of Lent. If we all did that. this world of our would be a very different place

    • I’m sorry, Paul, but the email address you gave me isn’t working. My email was returned with the message ‘mailbox unavailable’. The book I chose for you was the Gospel of Luke, but I had a few comments to add.

      • Thanks for assigning. Luke it is then.
        Sorry about the email, a domain caused an error, hopefully corrected it now. I’ll check for a reply to this one & any other follow up comments.
        Thanks again

  6. After listening to the debates on care for the elderly in the UK, their financial responsibilities and the lack of care and compassion often shown to them both by individuals and government, it strikes me that Pope Benedict has also highlighted a problem we all are witnessing, especially in the West. Papal critics beware – age creeps up at differing petty paces on us all !

  7. Yes, thank you. I would like a book as well please.

    I quite like the idea of us all reading the same book too? Given that you have not (yet?) met all of us, you are not really able focus your selections personally, are you?

    With love.

  8. I was shocked and deeply saddened upon hearing our Holy Father’s announcement. Shocked because while he has obviously become more frail I hadn’t heard to what extent his health was failing, and saddened because I understood what this meant for him.

    Further rubbing of salt into the wound occurred all day long as media, the majority of whom expressed ignorance of Catholicism and the reasoning behind our teachings, made broadcast statements of what they hoped to see in the Chair of Peter in the future. One guest on an on air discussion group, a self professed Agnostic of an entirely different religion went so far as to misstate the Church’s position on several issues with other members of the panel nodding their heads.

    Yes, big headlines, plenty of speculation, but this is very much a family matter, the choices made will affect us all, therefore let’s pray for the Cardinals who will vote and for the Holy Spirit’s influence to lead rather than giving our attention over to the media field day.

  9. Thank you for all your comments. I have emailed everyone who asked or a book, so let me know if the email hasn’t reached you by tomorrow. I prayed before making my selection and have been pleased to see that some of my choices were obviously guided by the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your kind responses. May you have a blessed lent, and don’t forget to pray for us here.

  10. Now that the news has sunk in I’ve been smiling quietly to myself at the thought of our dear Holy Father in peaceful and prayerful retirement. What a surprise and what an example he’s given to the world. I admire him more than ever. No wonder the media don’t know what to make of it all.

    I would also like a reading suggestion, if you’ve time to make one – plus I’m still praying for you and the community of “carpark nuns”.

  11. Thank you so much for what you’ve written, as always; but especially your reflection on yesterday’s news. I am so grateful for all God has done through Pope Benedict. I’ve only just read your post – am I too late to ask for a book? I hesitate to ask as so many have done so, but it would feel like a real gift, as I’ve been praying for some guidance for what to “take up” for Lent!

    Blessings and thank you.

  12. If it isn’t too late, could I please be assigned a book to read for Lent? Reading scripture in this way will be a new thing for me. I’m really looking forward to it. Kind regards and thank you.

  13. Thank you Sister for sharing your thoughts especially about Lent. Could you please assign me a book from scripture to read and meditate on during Lent? I am a wife and a working mother of nine kids if that bears on how you choose but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Scripture is powerful no matter which book you read, but I like how it’s not my choice but someone else’s (with the prompting of the Holy Spirit) choice.

  14. Hi Sister, this is great! I know we are now a week into Lent but I am still wanting to make this the best one yet; especially after reading your helpful tips!

    Could you send me some scripture and a book to read that will help to kick-start my Lent?!

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